A Response to Jonathan Ball’s “My Personal 2012 CWILA Count”

In a July 17th blog post (“My Personal 2012 CWILA Count”) the reviewer, writer and blogger Jonathan Ball takes CWILA to task for its counting methodology. He states that CWILA attributed the review of a mere 13 books to him in 2012 when, in fact, he reviewed 46. He wonders if CWILA is in fact not reading reviews but reading only headlines, leading us to count only the one book listed in the title and not the full four books that are routinely reviewed in his column. “If I am correct,” Ball states, “this would throw off CWILA’s numbers in probably every area, although I cannot say whether this might be a significant deviation.”

So an explanation of CWILA’s methodology is in order and to be clear: the assumptions made in Ball’s “My Personal 2012 CWILA Count” are incorrect.

Indeed CWILA does read the actual reviews we count and in doing so we count every book that appears in the review. For the 2012 count, the CWILA team read, counted and catalogued over 3,000 book reviews in Canada so that we could generate numbers on gender and identity that would allow us to continue important discussions around Canadian review culture.

Ball is, however, correct that we counted only 13 books reviewed by him. We used Factiva, an online database, to access the online archive of The Winnipeg Free Press, the primary publication for which Ball reviews. The WFP online archive lists only one omnibus review by Ball. It is of 12 books, from December 2012.  We also counted a book review that he authored for THIS magazine. This is where we got the number 13. None of Ball’s other reviews were included in the online archive. We also used Factiva to access online archives of the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail, and in their cases, it generated a complete inventory of all of their book reviews. The Winnipeg Free Press is the only newspaper we counted that did not provide us with an initial in-house count, which would have allowed us to confirm their numbers and prevent any discrepancies (such as missing a number of Jonathon Ball reviews). For the record, the other newspapers we counted—the National Post, The Globe and Mail, and The Vancouver Sun—all confirmed our numbers.

Ball’s concerns over our counting methodology could have been easily explained to him if he had taken the time to send us a quick email requesting an explanation of our count methodology for The Winnipeg Free Press. Due to the scope of the CWILA count and the fact that CWILA is run primarily on volunteer labour, it was not possible for us to singlehandedly obtain copies of all the print reviews of The Winnipeg Free Press to ensure that all of Ball’s reviews were counted. Instead we counted 100% of Ball’s reviews that appear in The Winnipeg Free Press digital archive available through Factiva. We did not clearly identify the methodology of the count in relationship to The Winnipeg Free Press. We will rectify this by adding an addendum to the 2012 CWILA count that describes the methodology for our count of that newspaper.

Another oversight of the 2012 count is that we neglected to include, as we did for the 2011 count, an important request for reviewers, editors and publishers to get in touch with us directly if they see any discrepancies or have any information that can strengthen our approach to the count. Our team works extremely hard to ensure that we have reliable numbers that can be used to better understand our review culture, but any help we can get along the way is always much appreciated. We would like publicly to thank, once again, all those publications and individuals who provided us with their own numbers against which to check our own.

Ball raises two other issues. The first concerns the CWILA essay “Measuring Canadian Support on the ‘Literary Assembly Line,’” by Laura Moss, in particular Moss’s comment that “a few reviewers have a good deal of influence.” Ball says, “I am not clear what Moss means by ‘influence’ nor how CWILA is measuring influence. Unless ‘influence’ can be quantified, I don’t quite see how its discussion is relevant to CWILA’s statistical approach.”

Can influence be quantified? This is an interesting question. It is by no means clear that it can’t be. For example, a quantitative researcher might ask: Are people who review 40+ books a year more likely to have their own work reviewed? Is there cultural capital to be earned by a person who has a dedicated reviewing practice that sits alongside their own writing practice? And are reviewers who review 40+ books a year less or more likely to receive a negative review? Does the fact that three reviewers wrote nearly one seventh of the book reviews that we counted last year mean that their opinions, tastes, and preferences had an impact on literary culture in Canada? Statistically speaking, all I can say is: we’d love to look into it.

The lead essay for this year’s count broached this question through its discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, elaborated in his book The Rules of Art: the Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Bourdieu describes how cultural capital acts as “a means of social distinction” among artists and involves itself in “the reproduction of advantage and disadvantage.” In the meantime, while we’re trying to put together funding for the research, we can ask: Do reviews and reviewers matter in the Canadian literary field? I know of no author nor reader who would not say quickly, and strongly, yes.

As a direct example of “influence,” let us take a closer look at a tweet by the literary magazine filling Station, where Ball held the position of section editor of film and video. The tweet reads as follows:

@jonathanballcom self-reports his “real” ‪@CanWomenInLit count. Reviewers: dare you do the same? Reply w/ your counts! ‪http://www.jonathanball.com/?p=3304#sthash.D953vYRI.dpuf …

This is a rhetorically rich statement even though it is written in under 140 characters. First, by using the word “real” in quotation marks, filling Station infers that the original CWILA numbers are somehow flawed and that Ball is in fact the keeper of the “real” numbers. By then daring other reviewers to “do the same” as Ball has done, filling Station suggests that the flaws are systemic, and potentially involve multiple publications, but as noted above, this is not the case.

Let me now take up Ball’s third concern, that CWILA incorrectly blames gender inequality in reviewing on publishers and editors. The most important point to note here is that CWILA was not founded to blame anyone. We do, it is true, ask editors and publishers to take responsibility for their numbers and to do what they can to rectify any imbalance. And we do this because we take editors and publishers to be responsible for what appears in their publications. A number of our members have editorial experience, and they confirm that editors control what appears in their pages, either by making direct requests or by accepting pitches. Ball, however, states that he himself is responsible for choosing most of what he reviews. What should we make of this? That The Winnipeg Free Press exercises no control over what it prints? This, too, if true, must shift our understanding of our literary culture. We welcome, indeed request, feedback from other editors, publishers and reviewers on this subject.

In the meantime, Ball’s willingness to take responsibility for his own numbers must serve as a beacon. Whether or not most reviewers enjoy the latitude he does, it will surely make a difference to gender equity in reviewing if reviewers themselves keep track; and, where they are in a position to pitch alternatives that could help to rectify gender imbalances, that they do so.

My thanks to Jonathan Ball for his support of CWILA’s objectives. I agree with him that in Canadian review culture there are gender disparities that favour men. I also agree with him that CWILA encourages attention, and that the solution to gender imbalance can be as easy as someone like Ball counting the books on his nightstand table. Already we are seeing a difference in many publications’ gender imbalances. That improvement hasn’t come out of shame, but rather out of a sense of pride, camaraderie and equality that makes our literary culture vibrant. Let’s continue the conversation.

—Gillian Jerome, July 2013

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